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Dorothea Tanning: A Radical Surrealist

Photo of Dorothea Tanning
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Photo of Dorothea Tanning

A leading member of the Surrealist Movement in Paris and New York, Dorothea Tanning paintings explored fantastical, dream-like subject matter, lighting up the imagination with visionary images.

Rising to prominence in New York and Paris during and after the Second World War, she was one of a handful of female artists associated with the International Surrealist movement, one whose free, spirited willingness to stretch and expand the boundaries of painting, sculpture and writing allowed her to break new, uncharted territory.

In the Wilderness

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Children’s Games, 1942, oil on canvas

Born in 1910 in Galesburg, Illinois, Dorothea Tanning was one of three sisters. Her parents were of Swedish descent, who had emigrated to the United States in search of unbridled freedom. But in this wilderness Tanning was bored and listless – she later wrote in her memoir, “Galesburg, where nothing happens but the wallpaper,” a concept that later inspired the fantastical painting Children’s Games, 1942.

Her father’s dream of becoming a horse-taming cowboy was never realised, but his boyish drawings of horses lit a spark in the young Tanning and she, too, began to see drawing as a form of escapism. Her early talent was spotted by a family friend, a poet, who exclaimed, “Oh no! Don’t send her to art school. They’ll spoil her talent.”

Life in Chicago

Dorothea Tanning
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Dorothea Tanning

Tanning’s first job at sixteen was with the Galesburg Public Library, where she was able to lose herself in literature, calling the place “my House of Joy.” In 1928 she moved on to Chicago, working as a restaurant hostess while taking night classes at the Chicago Art Institute.

Quickly disillusioned, she left after three weeks, and spent the rest of her career remaining self-taught, learning everything she needed to know from visiting museums and galleries. The social scene in Chicago was glistening with promise, as Tanning remembered, “In Chicago – I meet my first eccentrics … and I feel more and more certain of an exceptional destiny.” Her first solo exhibition was held in 1934 at a bookshop in New Orleans.

Struggles in New York

In 1935, Tanning boldly set off for New York in search of artistic freedom, but instead she was left starving and freezing in a cockroach infested apartment. She eventually found work as an advertisement designer for department stores including Macy’s.

After encountering the 1936 display, Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism at New York’s Museum of Modern Art she was thunderstruck, and the experience sparked a lifelong fascination with Surrealism.

Love and Success

Birthday, 1942, oil on canvas
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Birthday, 1942, oil on canvas

Tanning made a visit to Paris in 1939, hunting for Surrealist artists, but found they had all fled a city that was “breathing painfully before the brink of war.” On her return to New York, she met the art dealer Julian Levy, who introduced her to his Surrealist friends.

The artist Max Ernst made a visit to Tanning’s Manhattan studio and fell in love with both the artist and her art, selecting her painting Birthday, 1942 for the Exhibition by 31 Women, at his wife Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery in New York. Ernst left Guggenheim for Tanning and the pair married in a double wedding with the artist Man Ray and dancer Juliet P. Browner in 1946.

Arizona

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst in Arizona, photographed by Lee Miller, 1946
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Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst in Arizona, photographed by Lee Miller, 1946

Following their marriage, Tanning and Ernst moved to Sedona, Arizona, where they built their own house. Though they moved to France in 1949, the couple made regular return visits to their Sedona house in the 1950s.


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Tanning held her first solo exhibition in Paris in 1954. It allowed for exhibiting her trademark meticulously painted dreamscapes. The unusual narratives unravel, as seen in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943 and Some Roses and their Phantoms, 1952. Towards the later 1950s her style shifted to invoke greater movement and expression, echoing her interests in costume and fashion design.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, oil on canvas
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Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943, oil on canvas

Later Years

Tanning’s practice in the 1960s moved towards three-dimensions as she produced a series of “soft sculptures”, such as Nue Couchee, 1969-70, as well as found object arrangements and installations. She was devastated when Ernst died in 1976, and several years later returned to live in New York, spending her later years focussed on writing as her primary means of expression. After a long, productive life, Tanning died in New York in 2012, aged 101.

Nue Couchee, 1969-70, cotton textile, cardboard, tennis balls, wool and thread
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Nue Couchee, 1969-70, cotton textile, cardboard, tennis balls, wool and thread

Auction Prices

A pivotal member of the Surrealist groups in New York and Paris, Tanning’s artworks are highly prized and collectable. Women Surrealists were often overshadowed by their male counterparts. In the 1990s various art historians and institutions around the world have aimed at redressing the balance. Since then the price of women Surrealists’ artworks has been on the up. Some of Tanning’s most prominent public auction sales include:

Sotto Voce Ii, 1961, sold in November 2013 at Sotheby’s New York for $81,250.
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Sotto Voce Ii, 1961, sold in November 2013 at Sotheby’s New York for $81,250.
Un Pont Brule, 1965, sold for $90,000 in 13 November 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.
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Un Pont Brule, 1965, sold for $90,000 in 13 November 2019 at Sotheby’s New York.
A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today, 1944, made in homage to the writer Ann Radcliffe, sold for $314,500 at Christie’s London in February 2014.
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A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today, 1944, made in homage to the writer Ann Radcliffe, sold for $314,500 at Christie’s London in February 2014
The Magic Flower Game, was sold for $1 million on 6 November 2015 at Sotheby’s New York.
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The Magic Flower Game, was sold for $1 million on 6 November 2015 at Sotheby’s New York.
The Temptation of St Antony, sold for $1.1 million in May 2018 at Christie’s New York.
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The Temptation of St Antony, sold for $1.1 million in May 2018 at Christie’s New York.

Did you Know?

In her early years, Tanning’s lively spirit led her parents to believe she would become an actress, although she was more attracted to drawing and poetry.

While struggling to find work in New York in the 1930s, Tanning was a stage extra for the Metropolitan Opera, where she performed “hilarious employment”, wearing theatrical costumes and “waving my arms for 10 minutes.”

A keen dressmaker, Tanning loved hunting thrift stores for dresses, which she would transform into exquisite, fantastical creations for parties. These costumes would often appear on the figures in her Surrealist paintings.

Tanning was a keen chess player, and it is said that she and Max Ernst fell in love over a game, prompting Tanning to create the painting Endgame, 1944.

As well as producing art, Tanning made a series of costume and stage designs for the ballets of Russian choreographer George Blanchine, including Night Shadow, 1946, The Witch, 1950, and Bayou, 1952.

In 1997, The Dorothea Tanning Foundation was established in New York City, aimed at preserving the depth and breadth of her vast legacy.

Tanning vehemently rejected the term “woman artist”, which she thought would pigeonhole her practice. She argued, “There is no such thing – or person. It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as “man artist” or “elephant artist.”

In an interview in her later years, Tanning expressed the close intimacy she had held with her husband Max Ernst, calling him, “… not only a great man, but a wonderfully gentle and loving companion,” adding, “I have no regrets.”

Tanning’s career exceeded that of her husband Max Ernst by nearly 40 years; she continued to remain prolific and inventive right up to her last days.

Tanning was a keen writer, publishing her first novel, Abyss, in 1949. When she was 80, she focused predominantly on writing, producing various texts including her memoir, Between Lives: An Artist and her World, in 2001, and a collection of poems titled Coming to That, published in 2012, when she was 101.

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